Once upon a time, for reasons I’m not going into, a man was paid to beat me up. I lived in Bedford, a town of hangovers and accidents, and would catch sight of my would be assailant driving his 3 wheel car as he followed me around.
After work each day I had an evening job in a bottle shop. I spent my nights playing Leonard Cohen and The Prodigy while convincing people to buy more alcohol than they needed. I ate very little, smoked in the office and stole past sell by date beer, returning the empties as evidence that I had poured the beer down the sink as per policy.
This pre-Christmas night a man came in with a PlayStation bundled loosely with wires and asked to exchange it for 4 cans of Guinness.
“I can’t mate,” I said and he immediately started to cry.
“Please?” He was clutching the PlayStation with shaking hands.
“Sorry, I really can’t.”
The year before he'd come home from work to find his mother dead in the armchair, remote in hand and the TV blaring static. He’d spent several days at home with her body drinking everything in the house and had stayed drunk ever since.
Seeing my refusal was categorical he became belligerent. He kicked the counter and swore as he had done before when he had tried to exchange Steven Segal DVD’s for Gin. He spun on his heels and stared at the cruel sight of the alcohol that filled the shop, the back of his neck beading with sweat. I knew he was thinking of lashing out, knocking things over and sending cheap wine flooding towards the door. As he tensed up I let my fingers drop to the police alarm under the desk.
Before he could do anything the door chimed and two giggling girls came in stumbling on high heels and throwing cigarettes back out of the door. He stamped away and I sold yet another bottle of Lambrusco as I saw him pick up a lipstick stained cigarette end and suck it back to life. He scowled through the window at me as I was wished a Merry Christmas in a chorus of perfume.
Later I pulled down the security shutters and wheeled my bicycle towards the road. I heard a cough and thought the angry alcoholic had returned and figured I would give him some of the stolen beer in my bag. I turned to see two headlights flare, pinched close like pigs eyes, and I recognised the unmistakable grill of a Robin Reliant 3 wheeler.
I started peddling as I heard the car swing onto the road. I figured there was no way he was going to run me over so he would have to block my way. I also knew he had terrible acceleration and that the first sprint was up hill so I was in with a chance of out pacing him. In my head I heard soft rock anthems and I started peddling with feet of fury, clicking through the gears as parked cars started flashing past. I heard his engine whine and saw the splash of his headlights on the tarmac around me and as I pushed harder the light fell back. The crest of the hill was approaching as the sound of his engine grew smaller and I knew if I could crest the hill well ahead I might be able to jog onto the path by the river bridge without him seeing me. By the time I hit the peak I was in a high gear and with the change to downhill I was on a highway to …well away from… the danger zone.
I did the one and only bunny hop of my life up the kerb and sped to the dark of the path, leaving the road behind. I pulled to a halt and glanced back, seeing the 3 wheeler come over the rise. Moments later it sped around the corner and I knew I’d lost him.
Mentally high fiving myself for living the Dukes of Hazard dream I started peddling towards the river. Approaching the footbridge I stopped suddenly as a colossal dark skinned man with dreadlocks leapt in front of me.
“Stop man” he shouted and having no choice I swung into a bush and slipped from the bike. He was fast approaching so as I struggled upright I put the bike between us.
“What?” I asked, concerned that I’d dodged a three wheel marauder only to be mugged by a huge Rastafarian.
“Ya can’t go on” he told me and waved me back with his palms open. His eyes were wide and red rimmed.
“What’s wrong?” I asked and he suddenly dropped to the wet path and hung his head.
“I killed ‘im” he said and gestured to the path. I looked towards the shadows and tried to see who it was he had killed.
“I didn’t mean to, dancing to tunes, I stamp ‘pon ‘im.”
I stepped forward and saw a frog, legs splayed wide and body squashed.
“He a dead frog” he said and lit a huge joint before starting to gently cry.
I said I was sorry and when he held the joint out to me I had a puff or two to be polite.
“Can’t you do anything?” he asked me and I wondered what he meant. I looked back at the frog and heard the man sob.
“You know what?” He looked up, accepting his joint back. “Frogs are like mice, they have flexible rib cages. Like concertinas. They pop back into shape. It’s more than likely just in shock and in a while it’ll hop off. I wouldn’t worry.”
By the light of the glowing cherry he stared at me. “F’real?” I nodded and we both looked at the frog. Above us the stars of Christmas peered through the Bedford cloud cover. The wind died down and the only sound we could hear was the river shushing along as it raced to leave town.
“C’mon froggy” he said and accepting another hit from his joint I agreed, “C’mon Frog.” For half a minute we repeated the chant and suddenly the frog inflated, chest rising and head shaking. It rolled back onto its feet and without a glance at us it hopped away.
I laughed and turned to say goodbye to the man but he was now staring at me. He dropped the joint and it hissed on the wet wood.
“You witch” he shouted, pointing at me with a long wide finger.
I swung onto my bike and he jumped forward, stopping inches from me.
“How you do that? What powers you have man?”
“None mate, the frog was just in shock. Look I gotta go now.”
“HOW YOU DO THAT?” I flinched back. I could see his teeth biting the words.
“I gotta go mate, the frogs ok.”
He stared at me and stepped back a pace. “You witch” he whispered and I rolled forward saying nothing. His eyes stayed on me as I retreated and after a few seconds I started peddling. By the time I reached the footbridge I was weaving badly. I heard the thunder of steps behind me and groaned, picking up my pace as much as I could.
“Witch” he shouted from the start of the bridge, “Witch man!”
I glanced back and saw him waving. “Happy fucking Christmas witch” he shouted and pumped his fist, turning away and running back to the darkness.
At home I pulled some stolen beer from my backpack and settled on the sofa. There was a new pornographic magazine from my housemate on the carpet and a pool of cat vomit by the television. I considered both before finishing several beers and passing out in my clothes.
Somewhere else a Robin Reliant sat silent, unwilling to be bargained with or reasoned with. It didn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely would not stop, ever, it caught up with me. It never did.
Somewhere else a fantastically stoned Rastafarian sat staring at nothing as he worried about the Christmas Witch from the River Ooze.
As for the frog, he lives now, only in my memories.